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Bad Dog! Why Do Pets Run Away?

I’m happy to say that my parents’ dog has never run away (knock on wood), but that isn’t to say he’s never escaped. For reasons unknown to any of us, he’ll occasionally bust through the wooden fence from the backyard—he uses his head like a battering ram—and lie on the porch, waiting for my parents to come home. Is it a small act of rebellion? A simple desire to nap somewhere new? No one’s sure, but my dad’s building an extra-sturdy new fence just in case. 

My parents are lucky their dog doesn’t stray beyond the front yard, for many people have a much different experience with wandering pets—they leave home and sometimes don’t come back for days or weeks, if at all. It makes me wonder what’s so enticing that it can lure these animals away from perfectly good owners and homes. Why do dogs and cats run away in the first place, and, more importantly, is there a way to prevent it from happening? 

Run, Dog, Run
When your pet runs away, it’s easy to blame yourself and fall into a shame spiral, but the truth is that dogs and cats have characteristics that make such wandering common. First of all, they’re highly curious creatures by nature. Think of the animals they’re related to—wolves and tigers, both of which hunt and check out new areas of interest all the time. Exploring and chasing objects of desire are instinctual for house pets; even if they receive proper attention and care at home, they’ll always have an inkling to find out what lies beyond their territories, and sometimes that longing can’t be denied. 

Dogs in particular have several forces that could potentially propel them out the door. For starters, just the smell of another dog in heat could spark their procreation urge. Neutering and spaying reduce this likelihood by about 90 percent, but that leaves a small percentage of fixed animals that are ruled by pheromones. Another way their noses get them into trouble is by smelling food. If a tasty treat from afar tempts them enough, they’ll seek out its source. Also, if they’re not being stimulated enough at home—puppies and certain breeds have tons of energy and need proper outlets for it—they can run away out of sheer boredom. 

Even the toughest dogs can get scared away by loud noises. Called noise phobia, it’s often caused by thunder, gunshots, fireworks, and other booming, unexpected sounds. When dogs are scared and unsure, their first instinct is to run as far away as possible from the perceived danger (which includes abusive owners and other animals as well). Unfortunately, if they run too far, they’re unable to smell their way back home. 

Cats on the Prowl
Like dogs, cats enjoy the thrill of the chase (for food and mates), but they’re also extremely territorial and don’t like staying away for too long. That’s why some owners have “outdoor” cats—the ability to come and go as they please satisfies felines’ curiosity while affording both the owners and the pets the comfort of knowing the cats will return. However, this creates problems when owners try to move to a new home. Without a proper adjustment period, there’s a good chance the cat will constantly try to get back to familiar territory. This is how many cats wind up missing; to them, they’re not running away from home—they’re running back to it. 

Another common reason cats go missing is that they’re indoor-only and then are suddenly exposed to the great outdoors. Cats generally detest change, so a big change like that will send them into panic mode, which drives them to hide in darkened, confined spaces and be wary of everything, including their owners. 

A Sad Kind of Alone Time
Something that hasn’t been proven but is a recognized behavior among owners is a pet’s inclination to hide when sick. It’s a protective drive; when animals are vulnerable, their best defense is hiding from potential predators. If a dog or cat feels ill, he or she might leave the house but probably won’t venture too far from home, due to weakness. As a result, many owners believe dogs and cats run away so that they can die alone, either as a shielding measure or to save their masters some heartache. (Obviously, the last notion isn’t a fact, but grieving owners find some comfort in believing it.) 

Before They Escape …
The fact is, it’s in a pet’s nature to escape from home from time to time. Squashing the innate traits that motivate that behavior is near impossible, but there are easy steps owners can take to minimize them. The Web site PetPlace.com recommends neutering and spaying as the first line of defense. The less desire a pet has to seek out a playmate, the better your chances of keeping him or her at home and out of harm’s way. Secondly, make sure the barrier between your pet and the outside world is strong and can withstand the most eager of escape artists’ charges. 

All pets should have proper identification tags attached to their collars at all times. Make sure that information is up to date and that the collar is in good condition. Those tags won’t help you find a runaway pet if the collar is too frayed to stay on the animal. Another option is implanting a microchip so that any animal shelter can identify your pet. Talk with your vet about the different options available to choose the best ID method for you and your pet. 

Above all, review your pet’s environment and lifestyle—is it clean and hospitable? Is there lots of open space for him or her to roam in? Is he or she being fed properly and getting adequate exercise? All of these factors are essential to a dog or cat’s happiness and well-being. There are a variety of reasons why pets try to run away from home, but as long as their environments keep them occupied and content, they’ll be much less likely to do so. But before you feel guilty about Fido’s or Fluffy’s being miserable at home, remember that the quest for discovery is in animals’ nature. The best thing you can do, other than being good to your pets, is combat potential future breakouts. (Dad, I hope you started building that fence!)

Related story: Celebrity Dogs and Pop Star Pups

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